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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Seminar - Perceptual Optics. Using the Eye to Understand Light and Colors from the 18th Century

25th November 2013, 13:00 to 14:00, IAS Seminar Room, Cosin's Hall, Palace Green, Dr Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis (University of Twente)

In 1604 Johannes Kepler introduced a new paradigm to understand vision: the eye is a camera obscura with a lens that projects images on the retina. It replaced the scholastic conception of direct vision by a mediated process of pictures painted on the retina by optical means. Ut Pictura, Ita Visio. By rendering observations to projected images vision was exteriorized and thus objectived. In his new theory of light and colours Isaac Newton managed to subject colours to the same paradigm by projecting the spectrum on a screen. The paradigm of retinal pictures was quite successful and dominated early modern thinking pretty much. Still, there were limitations to the model. It was difficult to explain aspects of vision such as depth, light intensity, and primary colours. The latter issue strikes at the heart of Newton's theory and indicates that such theories were of little help and relevance to artists and other practitioners. Some pioneering efforts were made by often marginal figures, but the puzzles were only cracked in the nineteenth century. Curiously enough by rather simple means that had also been available to early modern inquirers.

The seminar will briefly sketch early modern conceptualizations of light, color and vision, leaving ample room for a general discussion:

  • why is the Keplerian model of vision difficult to account for certain perceptual phenomena?
  • what conceptual, epistemic, disciplinary impediments existed in early modern science to understand depth, intensity, primaries?

Fellows' seminars take place on Monday lunchtimes in the seminar room at Cosin's Hall.

Places are limited and so any academic colleagues interested in attending a seminar should contact the Institute in advance to reserve a place.

The aim of these seminars is to develop new thinking on the big issues that are of current concern/interest for the Fellows . Each Fellow is asked to present a core idea that informs their current work, or a problem that they are tackling, that could benefit from cross-disciplinary thinking. These seminars are informal and designed to encourage discussion.

Contact for more information about this event.